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Is Urban Fantasy The Next Genre Neanderthal?

In a recent post on the-toast.com, Ginger Clark, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd., remarked:

It is much harder to sell a new urban fantasy series now that it was three years ago. UF still rules the bestseller charts (Butcher, Hamilton, Harris, Harrison, my own client Richard Kadrey), but those authors who are at least three or four books into their series and have built an audience.

Neanderthal man by skunk257This is a sentiment I’ve heard a few times, and it got me thinking. If urban fantasy has become resistant to letting in new blood, does it risk becoming the next genre Neanderthal?

Let me explain. Neanderthals were bigger, stronger, and just as smart as Homo sapiens, if not smarter. In other words, you could argue they were the “genetic bestsellers” of their day. And yet, they are not around today. They went extinct.

Or did they? There is a theory that Neanderthals did not die out, but they were subsumed into the Homo sapiens species through interbreeding. You can find evidence of Neanderthal DNA in modern human DNA, but you won’t find modern Neanderthals. Might the same thing happen to urban fantasy? If it cannot adapt, expand, and evolve, will it be subsumed into other genres?

I know this theory sounds strange, but urban fantasy would not be the first genre to follow this path. In fact, the Roundtable Podcast recently had an episode on the death of cyberpunk. And like Mark Twain, the reports of cyberpunk’s death have been greatly exaggerated: it didn’t die, it just ceased to be a separate, identifiable genre.

The Legend of Yamato by Yap Kun RongWith the spread of information technology, cyberpunk tech ceased to be this unique, rare thing. So cyberpunk was mashed up with other genres: key features of cyberpunk (e.g., the fetishization of technology, and a small group of rogues battling against law enforcement or corporations) were hidden among other genres. The panelists argued that both the Fast and the Furious movies and steampunk could be considered cyberpunk. That is, they are the equivalent of the modern Neanderthal DNA in modern humans.

If current trends continue (always a dangerous phrase when it comes to publishing), I think it will be quite common for readers to see urban fantasy’s key features mixed in with other genres. So what are those key features? Speaking very broadly,* I would argue that an urban fantasy story includes 1) an urban setting (in the past, present, or future) and 2) the presence of magic, monsters, mythological creatures, and or the paranormal.

So how could other genres subsume urban fantasy? Well, many urban fantasy stories are based around a mystery or crime procedural. These types of stories are cousins of the various types of thrillers; so, for example, I wouldn’t be surprised to start seeing urban fantasy mixing with techno-thrillers (a telepath sells stolen DARPA specs to a leprechaun hedge fund manager?), medical thrillers (vaccines using basilisk venom have unintended consequences?) or legal thrillers (a vampire defense attorney enthralls juries until he has a crisis of conscience?). I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the bestseller lists are populated by novels that mix urban fantasy with westerns, comedies, and literary fiction as well.

Breach Zone (cover)I think we are already seeing the beginning of urban fantasy interbreeding,** most obviously in the rise of paranormal romance (which Clark said is also hard for new writers to enter). Weird Westerns are becoming more popular. Jennifer Rardin’s Jaz Parks series mixes urban fantasy and spy thrillers. And it looks like Myke Cole’s upcoming military fantasy novel, BREACH ZONE, will explore the effect of magical attacks on New York City.

Of course, my “Neanderthal argument” should be taken with a grain of salt. Tor could announce the next big urban fantasy series tomorrow. Then again, maybe not. Maybe publishers will keep pushing urban fantasy to interbreed. But I hope this argument, if nothing else, reinforces the dangers of chasing the market. Trying to copy Jim Butcher and Laurell K. Hamilton will lead to a difficult sale. Being bold, being new, and telling your story might not only be an easier sale, but it might also help urban fantasy evolve into something new.***

*I can’t claim encyclopedic knowledge of urban fantasy, so I wanted to be as broad as possible. I realize that my list might be controversial to some. If I overlooked a characteristic you think is essential, I apologize.

**Again, if I missed an example, it was not intentional, please leave a comment to help spread the word about a series I should be reading.

***And if any of these story ideas prompts you to write the next, big thing in urban fantasy, all I ask is that you please include me in the acknowledgments and send me an ARC.

Title image by skunk257.

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8 Comments

  1. To a degree Urban Fantasy is already going to be a hybrid genre because it is a setting as much as it is a genre. Urban Fantasy takes our world – past present and future and adds the supernatural to it. But that hardly makes a plot. So you already have to have something else to add a story within that setting – a mystery, a romance, a police drama, a survival horror, a fantasy style quest, something. Just having “woo supernatural exists” is a background, but you need something in the foreground, you can’t just have the world setting

  2. Avatar C.Hill says:

    Eh. I’ve always seen UF as present day fantasy, usually in an urban setting. I disagree with it being in any time period. Past is alt-history fantasy, whereas future is usually science fantasy. UF deals with the now. Maybe I’m alone in my thinking. Sub-genres have always been hard to classify.

  3. Avatar Overlord says:

    I think it is like most genres – a publishing company has HUGE success with a certain title and readers start asking for similar books. One publisher once told me that after Twilight the whole industry was pretty much like ‘give me something with Vampires in!’ and as a result you see loadssssss of vampire series hitting the shelves. As the whole vampire thing beings to get old, readers start asking for the same thing but different. Either the vampires will change somehow or the vampires will disappear, but there will be an evolution somewhere.

    C, I think that is true now, but I do think Eric is correct in that this is an evolution. If you trace UF back, I think the current roots lead back to Buffy and Anita Blake. Both of those series focus directly on the protagonist and situations revolve around them (in the early books at least). As you move further in time, you see that the empowered individual begins to get more normal (Dresden is a PI, Myke Cole’s protagonist is a soldier and Aaronovitch’s is a policeman – I guess crime and forces is a good fit). Again, I think Eric’s guess that UF will start to focus on ‘bigger’ issues is a good one. New York being under attack rather than Buffy being under attack is a natural evolution in a World that is constantly worried about where the next attack will come from.

    The funny thing is that Superhero comics and movies seem to be lightyears ahead of UF in that respect 😉

  4. Avatar Tim says:

    I’d think a bit of genre blending would be good. I was worried when I first read it, because I thought it meant Character in a city against supernatural/preternatural forces would disappear, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

    @Overlord

    A part of me thinks the big issues, ending in comics, passage would be a devolution. As Fantasy did start out as event over characters, and I can’t help but feel stepping back and New York under attack rather than Character under attack would be one step forward and two steps back.

    Mind you, it would be perfect if it could broaden the scope and still have character driven stories. Eg: Buffy is still being attacked, but the world is being attacked at the same time 😛

  5. Avatar Splicer says:

    Is one a writer because one is compelled to write a particular thing or is one a writer if and only if what they write is trendy and can be easily $old?

  6. Avatar David Greybeard says:

    Nah, it’s a matter of overabundance. Seems like there are dozens of new UF books every week! When I look at the SFF section at Barnes and Noble, nearly every book is a UF, or it’s near kin of Paranormal Romance. And, way, way too many series. Why does every new SFF book have to be a Part One. Whatever happened to the One-off novels?

  7. Avatar Sean Cunningham says:

    Not being much of a fan of noir detectives or police procedurals, I’ve been on the hunt for urban fantasy that blends in something like superheroes for a while.

    It need not be the high-octane stuff like the Avengers movie either. The comics series Astro City takes a look at what life would be like living in a city with superheroes. And if that doesn’t sound like urban fantasy, there’s an issue within the first graphic novel from the point of view of a woman who lives in the supernatural part of the city.

  8. Avatar katya mills says:

    I also thought UF was present day only. Not happening in the past or future.

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